Review: Unearthed Arcana

Copyright Robert Defendi © 2004

Edited by Suzanne Campbell for The Guild Companion

"If Great-Great-Grandmama had a strange thing for minotaurs or demons, these rules can help your character reflect that (and give the family something not to talk about)."

"Get ready to drink from the fire hose."

Unearthed Arcana opens with these words and no phrase has ever been more appropriate. This is not a standard core rulebook where the DM can just say yay or nay on whether or not they're using the material. Unearthed Arcana/ is not even trying to be that kind of book. Unearthed Arcana is a collection of dozens (hundreds, if you count like a marketer) of optional rules for Dungeons & Dragons, many of which conflict with one another. This book has something for everybody and everything for nobody.

If you buy this book thinking you're getting another normal core rule book, you're probably not going to like it. If you buy this book hoping to find individual rules to liven your campaign, you'll probably like it very much.

Chapter 1 contains racial rules. These rules are the most niche-oriented of the book. For instance, the first section involves environmental racial variants (like desert elves). Honestly, I don't think I'll ever use these unless I do an extremely theme-oriented campaign (like a home grown Dark Sun). This is followed by elemental variants, which are even more niche-like (air elves). Then come bloodlines, which are fairly interesting if you allow this sort of thing. Bloodlines allow you to introduce racial traits without saying a character is half something. If great-great-grandmama had strange thing for minotaurs or demons, these rules can help your character reflect that (and give the family something not to talk about). Finally, this chapter finishes with what most will think is its most useful section, the racial paragons. These are three-level prestige classes that grant bonuses emulating the most stereotypical traits of a race (Stonecutting and constitution for dwarves, for example).

Chapter 2 is all about the classes. They start with variant classes, which are your base classes tweaked somewhat. For instance, the cloistered cleric is a variant class that drops some of the cleric abilities (it lowers the hit die, for instance) to grant such abilities as Lore and the Knowledge domain. These are actually quite interesting. Following this is an extensive section on variant specialist wizards, rules for spontaneous divine casters, and variant rules for various class abilities such as turning undead and the barbarian's rage. Next is the prestige class section, but in this section they take three base classes (Bard, Paladin and Ranger) and present them as prestige classes. This will be particularly handy for games where, for instance, a person must petition to a holy order to become a paladin. Next come Gestalt characters, which are essentially characters that have two classes at once (as opposed to multi-classing) for games where there aren't enough players to cover all the class bases (are you starting to see why no one can use all these rules at once?). Finally come the generic classes, which are a way to step away from all the class complexity and get down to four very basic choices.

Wow! Seems like a lot doesn't it? We just finished page 78.

Chapter 3 covers building characters, and no, this doesn't have the old Unearthed Arcana's stat rolling system. It starts with alternative skill systems and rules for complex skill checks. Then it moves onto character traits (which are like advantages in other games). Next comes . . . you guessed it . . . character flaws, followed by spelltouched feats for those characters that have had a lot of exposure to certain spells, rules for grouping weapons by type for the sake of weapon group proficiencies, a set of alternate rules for crafting items (magical or otherwise) during campaign down time, and finally background rules, for representing skills a character had before becoming an adventurer.

Is your head spinning yet? Mine is.

Next comes Chapter 4: Adventuring. This is where things really start contradicting themselves. It starts with class defense bonuses, like in Star Wars, and moves into armor Damage Reduction. Then it moves into rules for having armor convert damage instead of stopping it outright, then moves into an injury system that negates the use of hit points completely. But wait! After that it brings hit points back in the form of vitality and wound damage (like in Star Wars again), goes back to the original hit point system but allows for a character to have "reserve points" which essentially allow them to heal very quickly, then it moves on to alternate rules for massive damage while throwing out a rule for dodging when it isn't your turn (a page layout nonsequitur), new death or dying rules (which look a lot like the rules for dying in the vitality points section, but we're back to hit points, now, remember?). Then we move on to action points which characters can spend during a game to help save their proverbial bacon, combat facing rules (which I've been waiting for forever) with some extremely ineffective luck rules thrown in a sidebar. But wait! Maybe you're an old GURPS player. We better throw in hex rules as well. Speaking of GURPS, who cares if this is D20. Let's take out the d20 from the game and have the player's roll 3d6s instead. Speaking of that, let's have the players roll all the dice, taking the load off the DM. And, and, and . . .

Oh. I guess that chapter ends there.

On to Chapter 5, because we've barely even touched . . . Magic. Lets start with rules that give a character a magic rating based on all their multiclassing instead of a straight spellcaster level. Hey, Rogues pick up stuff about magic too! Then let's introduce the concept of themed summoning lists, because it's always embarrassing to summon an amphibian on the lip of an active volcano. While we're at it, why not let characters throw money at the problem of metamagicked spells instead of increasing the spell slots (and drop in a rule about metamagic and sorcerers while we're at it). Wait! That reminds us. We have all these new possible spontaneous casters now. Lets put in metamagic rules for them and a second optional rule for sorcerers, to boot. Speaking of spontaneous casting. How about spell points? A lot of people play Rolemaster, don't they? Speaking of that, why not have characters recharge between spells, eliminating the hard cap on spells per day entirely. You know, I've stopped mentioning the side bars completely now. Still, I don't want to lose my momentum so let's move on to legendary weapons which increase in power with the character (new prestige classes in here). You know, that sounds kinda like a familiar, so let's throw in familiars that are items. Now let's shift gears and throw in rules for ritual magic (we'll call them incantations). Since we've now brought magic into the hands of even nonspellcasters, lets finish up with . . .

. . . .Chapter 6: Campaigns, in case we hadn't, you know, done enough to shake up your game.

The chapter starts with new rules for contacts, but contacts need to have opinions of the characters, so we'll move onto reputation rules. Hey, didn't reputation first come from Oriental Adventures? Yeah, let's throw in honor too. You know, with honor comes the opposite, so we should have taint rules as well and if we're going to have tainted characters we'll need--you guessed it--tainted prestige classes. Wow... I'm starting to lose it here! I think we need rules for sanity! That was a little much, so we'll change tracks again, this time attacking the concept of prerequisites. How do you know if a character has the toughness feat? Let's base prerequisites on tests instead. While we're breaking free of molds, how about XP awards that aren't based on level? That sounds good so lets turn the page to . . .

. . . the afterword? Are we done already? I'm barely even started.

I don't know if you became as exhausted reading this as I did writing it, but now you should have some idea what's in store in Unearthed Arcana . Some of these rules are very good. Some of them are stupid. I doubt anyone will completely agree on which are which, and I think that was their intention. The biggest thing to keep in mind is to watch how these rules interact. For instance, if you use vitality points or the death and dying rules, character death is based on fortitude saves, so you best make sure your rules keep those from getting out of control. If you have one gestalt character you better have everyone play gestalt characters. Also, don't try to integrate rules that oppose one another too greatly, like the injury rules and vitality points, unless you want to play with real world insanity as well.

The biggest drawback of this book is you're going to waste money. No one can use more than half of these rules at a time without verging on the ridiculous, so unless you have an extremely high turnover on campaigns, it will take years to use the whole book. Meanwhile, you're paying for development, paper and color ink that you're not using. But if that doesn't bother you, this is the book for you.

Editor's Note: Unearthed Arcana is produced by Wizards of the Coast for Dungeons and Dragons and retails for $34.95 USD. For further information visit their website at